The last Sunday in August

By John Green

You see it every September in the Herald-Sun. Photographs of victorious premiership sides in suburban and country leagues across the state. Jubilant players leaning into a huddle. Laughing out loud and yelling “Yeah, you beauty!” As many as possible touching the premiership cup and others extending their index fingers to indicate that they are number one.

I’ve always thought they were a little over the top. After all, outside their communities no-one really cares. Sometimes I’ve never even heard of the towns they represent or the leagues their clubs are part of.

I never played in a Grand Final. The best I could muster was a couple of losing Preliminary Finals. As a Richmond supporter, I saw the Tigers win five flags by the time I was 20. I was actually present at the MCG on three of those occasions. It was all I knew. I took it for granted and was shocked and angered if they didn’t win it. But that’s ancient history now. Grand Finals are for other clubs, so I’ve taken to viewing them with a measure of detachment. At finals time I’m strictly neutral and I’ve accepted the fact that Richmond may never again appear in the main event.

Even so, I’m not entirely without feelings. I was able to appreciate the emotion of supporters celebrating drought-breaking premierships, such as the Swans in 2005 and Geelong in 2007. To some extent I enter into the tension of close Grand Finals, such as the epic Sydney-West Coast encounters, Geelong V St. Kilda in 2009 and the draw between the Magpies and the Saints in 2010.

But something almost completely unexpected happened when my son’s team played in the Yarra Junior League Section Four Grand Final. I was totally caught up in the moment. I entered that realm where everything is on the line and nothing else matters but the outcome of a contest between a  bunch of teenage boys on a muddy field.

I entered that muddy field quite a few times throughout the afternoon in my capacity as runner for the Ivanhoe under-15 B’s in the season’s decider against Warrandyte.

It was played at Binnak Park, Watsonia North, the home ground of St. Damians. I wasn’t nervous at all. Why should I be? Warrandyte were hot favourites. In an eight-team competition, we had met them three times. Ivanhoe won the first bout by seven points, before Warrandyte turned the tables by 52 points in the return match. We met again in the final round of the season where the winner would clinch top spot on the ladder. Warrandyte prevailed by 30 points, and followed it up with a 48-point demolition in the second semi-final. Ivanhoe won the right to challenge them for the title with a comfortable victory over Fitzroy in the Preliminary Final. Sure, we would have a full bench for a change and we had arranged for our giant ruckman, Patrick, or Big Red as he is also known, to be released from the shackles of his private school, where he boards while his parents work in Brazil. The school authorities were never too happy to see him running around for his local club and risking injuries that might have kept him out of the school team. But Warrandyte had the wood over us and boasted  the winner of the competition best and fairest as well as the leading goalkicker of the home and away fixtures.

Ivanhoe won the toss and kicked with the wind in the first term but couldn’t score a goal. Warrandyte led by 21 points at the first break. I confided to my brother outside the huddle that the boys were “gone”. I fully expected the match to be over by half time. But the Bloods failed to press  home their advantage and kept kicking points.

Dehno relentlessly, but fairly tagged Warrandyte’s chief playmaker and prevented him from dominating. Big Red was unstoppable at the centre bounces and when surging out of the back half. After failing to hold onto his marks earlier in the game  Greeny began to haul them in and slot a few goals. Josh, Liam and Declan had saved their best performances for the year for this one afternoon. Jack hadn’t played for a couple of months due to an injured finger, but slotted into a defensive role with aplomb.

But it was all of them, fifteen-year-olds just starting to shave; committed, courageous and running their hearts out. Not just for themselves, but for coaches Jeremy and Anthony, the volunteers and for all the families they represented. They were doing it for us.

We could win this.

Supporters on the boundary, and there are always more of them at Grand Finals, became more animated as the Hoes worked themselves back into the game. Incredulous howls of protest met questionable umpiring decisions. The coaches on the boundary line bellowed instructions to fiercely competitive participants. I was completely caught up in the unfolding drama. On the sideline I vigorously disputed an umpire’s call before urging myself to calm down and concentrate on my own role. I found myself delaying my exit from the field after delivering instructions so I could yell encouragement to players in the thick of the action. I was warned by the umpire and scooted off immediately to avoid incurring a penalty for the team, something that occurred not long after to the opposing runner.

The final quarter was played at fever pitch. Ivanhoe hit the front, leading to an outbreak of leaping and fist pumping by coaching staff and spectators. I took some deep breaths and tried to compose myself. Warrandyte regained the lead with a goal of their own. Greeny booted his sixth to level the scores. A Warrandyte player fired off a quick shot but the ball drifted across the face of goals and out of bounds. Minutes later the siren sounded and heralded the unthinkable. A drawn Grand Final. Extra time of two five-minute halves.  There was momentary confusion before we knew exactly who was entitled to address the players on the field. Jeremy, Jack the trainer and myself as runner. Everybody urging each other on for one last effort.

Greeny plucked another mark and loaded up. Our hearts were in our mouths. He missed. One point in it. Then he reeled in the ball a metre out from goal and the crowd erupted. This was the major that was going to bring home the flag. But the umpire placed him on an acute angle. Supporters behind the goals were irate and claimed he should be taking the shot from the square. Then the second umpire reversed the decision and awarded the kick to Greeny’s opponent.

We were aghast.

I was sent out to find an explanation from our team. They were mystified. We found out later that one of our players had criticised the decision to set Greeny on the angle and had been overheard by the second umpire. The player who had caused the reversal, so important to Ivanhoe with his courage and ball-winning ability, had been in tears, feeling that he had blown the Grand Final for his teammates. Greeny marked yet again in the second period of extra time, but missed once more. Two points the difference. Was it enough? The pressure was unrelenting. The Ivanhoe players ran, tackled, dived for the ball and harassed their opponents. The Warrandyte boys were just as desperate, but their scoring had dried up.

I was sent  back onto the field inside the last minute to urge our forwards to press back and flood Warrandyte’s attacking zone. It looked like the ball was not about to come out. My voice was hoarse as I feverishly motioned with my hand and called for the boys to get down there. They were exhausted and struggled to make their ground.

Time seemed to stand still. Then Anthony rejoiced. “Ten seconds! We’ve got it!” I had never heard a more welcome sound than that final siren. Relief and euphoria. There were tears. Men embraced before running onto the field to join their sons.

There were mums and dads, uncles and aunts, siblings and grandparents milling around the boys. For the victorious players, all the aches and pains, cold winter nights at training and inevitable defeats along the way had led them to this transcendent point in time.

I guarded the water bottles, first aid box and dressing gowns on the fringe of the crowd during the formalities, taking it all in. Medals to the premiers and runners up, gracious speeches from the respective coaches. The game could have gone either way. What a thin line there was between joy and despair.

We headed  back to the clubrooms at Ivanhoe Park. Ivanhoe had five teams in Grand Finals that day. The under 11’s and 12’s were also successful. It was a happy crowd full of happy people, like me.

Footy’s a wonderful game. Premierships are wonderful too, and they don’t come along very often for most of us, whether we’re players, coaches, volunteers, parents or supporters. Or for middle-aged runners, for that matter, trying to avoid umpires and giving young kids messages they don’t always want to hear.

I hope everybody gets to experience it at least once in their lifetime.

Comments

  1. John – Great read. I got caught up in the moment. Well done on the win.

  2. Stephinboots says:

    Fantastic report. It was like being there. Again!

    Wonderful match, such excitement, on and off field. A joy to watch the boys dig in and turn the ground around, and then guts it out during extra time.

    Loved watching the boys turn from big bustling boy-men on the field to tired, tentative young lads on the ground waiting for the presentation.

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